“You have to keep me in shoes.”
Of all the stories my late grandmother Naomi Pearl Russin Royal told, the one involving my late grandfather’s proposal and her response always amused me. As she told it, she had larger feet than typical for a woman her size, so keeping her in well-fitting shoes was difficult. Her response to his proposal wasn’t just an amusing retort, but a requirement of him and a show of good faith regarding whether he would care for her properly. Love comes in many forms, including caring for one’s feet. I couldn’t help but think of this story during Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) as the main cast sang a song about what happiness means to them, including shoes upon their feet. Now this particular group was made up of vagabonds who’d just finished building their own shantytown, but the song spoke to their resilience, as well as to the minimum requirements of all people: home, food, and clothes. As long as these people could be kept in shoes, they’d be ok. If this sounds like the kind of joyful experience you may want to take part in, De Sica’s 1951 fantastical dramedy Miracle in Milan is joining the Criterion Collection with a beautiful 4K digital restoration, a slew of bonus features, and essays.
The first day orphan Totó (Francesco Golisano) leaves the orphanage for good, his only bag is stolen while he is distracted. Rather than confront the man in anger, upon learning that the man found the bag lovely, Totó empties the contents and hands it over gladly. In reciprocity, the man offers Totó a place to sleep for the night. It’s here that Totó comes to meet the other vagrants who are more than willing to share what they have, even the sliver of sunlight that offers the slightest warmth from the current winter cold. With Totó’s endless positivity, the group builds their own neighborhood out of the scraps left on the property, creating a community for themselves. All of this is threatened when oil is found and the land owner wants them all removed.
Audiences that pick up Miracle in Milan already have a sense of what the film is, but, in case you’re coming to this fresh, allow some exploration.
De Sica’s Miracle in Milan is an adaptation of Cesare Zavattini’s novel (adapted by Zavattini himself for the film) which explores the relationship of humankind in a post-war Italy using whimsy, fantasy, and comedy to smooth over the rougher commentary of humankind’s problematic elements. The film begins with an elderly woman (played by Emma Gramatica) finds a baby in her cabbage patch (in an almost unmistakable reference to Alice Guy- Blaché’s La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages)) who she raises as her own. From the jump, this clues in the audience that what we’re about to see is as much a fable as it is grounded. She teaches him that despite life’s accidents, how we react sets the tone for what our life will be. Thus it makes sense that the grown child would react to his bag being stolen by leaving it with the man who took it. It also makes sense that he would then, without hesitation, step in as a guide to the people he meets, helping them to have a place of their own. Totó tries very hard to respect each person he meets, attempting to make them feel valued and worthy, whether painting, building, or just struggling to exist. Totó is emblematic of what humanity should be if we stopped putting our own pain, our own greedy desires ahead of everyone else. Thus the film possesses a “so goes one, so do us all” notion, very uplifting and positive, speaking to what we as humans owe each other and the way in which a community which cares for itself can prosper. Though the fantasy elements really only come back later in the second half of the film, by that point, there’s been so much negativity that Totó and the rest have had to combat that the whimsical method used to protect what their’s and, ultimately, the end the film, is commentary enough on how society often views those they deem lesser and how property somehow has come to mean more over people. Granted, since March 2020, there’s been plenty of evidence to that between COVID-19 and the righteous vocal cries for racial equity. Just as Miracle in Milan ends with the Totó and his friends flying away on brooms to a place with hope, peace, and honest sincerity, that same joy comes with a dark-tinge: where could they land that would accept a group of vagabonds? In today’s society, as in post-World War II Italy, the answer may just depress you.
Next, let’s talk restoration.
According to the liner notes, the film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the monoaural audio remastered from the original soundtrack negative, and the video elements remastered through a coordinated effect of several parties to create a composite restoration. The film itself opens with information on the restoration, so if your copy doesn’t include the liner notes, future editions will still possess proclamations of the work that went into preserving the film. When compared against the film trailer posted on IMDB, the restoration is an absolute marvel. In that trailer, the rougher elements of age are present, the grains heavily visible, clarity an issue that makes the film appear as old as it is. This restoration removes any distortion while maintaining the original charm of the images. There are no tweaks that appear in disservice of preservation, either in video or audio, so that Miracle in Milan is now ready to be enjoyed by new audiences. To use a metaphor from the film itself, the restoration isn’t merely applying a top hat and thinking itself better, it’s still the same sweet-natured fantasy just with a cleaner look and clean sound.
Finally, the bonus features.
Like all Criterion releases before it, Miracles in Milan comes with liner notes that include cast and crew information, restoration information, and written materials. In this case, we’re gifted with an essay from film critic Christina Newland and a 1940 treatment of “Totò il buono,” the story from which the film is based. This is reminiscent of the restoration of Onibaba which included one of the Buddist fables that inspired the film. In this way, there’s not much in the written materials that wow, but the essay from Newland is fascinating in its ideas and factoids that new viewers will have a great deal of material to chew on while processing their thoughts on the film.
On-disc is a different story as home viewers are able to enjoy a 2019 feature-length documentary from the series Italiani con Paolo Mielli focused on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, a previously recorded audio interview between film critic Gideon Bachmann and De Sica, previously recorded interviews with actor Brunella Bovo (who played Totó’s love interest Edvige) and De Sica’s son Manuel, as well as a brand-new 2021 interview with neorealism expert and film scholar David Forgacs. As expected from Criterion, there’s plenty of content here that should excite old fans of the film, new viewers, and cinephiles with a tendency toward historical preservation.
Going back to where this Criterion review started, for those wondering, my grandfather was able to keep my grandmother in shoes. Not just literally, but in the metaphorical way she requested. If the stories she told me were accurate, he was a man of mirth and love who knew what my grandmother was worth and supported her in her endeavors. This is but one of many lessons that I took from her which I carry forward in my own marriage to EoM editor Crystal Davidson. I’m unable to literally keep my also clodhoppered (her word) partner in shoes (she’s the breadwinner), but I do attempt the same kind of idealized support. This feels very much in-line with De Sica and Zavattini thematic intent in their tale: by working together, we will not want and we will not suffer. We will have roofs over our heads, food in our belly, and shoes upon our feet. By working together, caring for one another, we can have a miracle anywhere.
Miracle in Milan Special Features:
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview with neorealism expert and film scholar David Forgacs (27:20)
- Audio interview from the late 1960s in which director Vittorio De Sica looks back on his career, conducted by film critic Gideon Bachmann (8:58)
- Interviews with actor Brunella Bovo (5:32)
- Interview with Manuel De Sica, the director’s son (7:11)
- Feature-length documentary from 2019 on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (53:51)
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Christina Newland and, on the Blu-ray, “Totò il buono,” a 1940 treatment by Zavattini that is the earliest version of the story on which Miracle in Milan is based
- New cover by Manule Fior
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection April 19th, 2022.